September 11, 2005
Wisconsin Cheese Tour: Brunkow Cheese Cooperative
Posted by Gordon Smith


A few weeks ago, I found a map of Wisconsin designed for cheese tasters. Talk about an invitation I could not refuse! So today, driving home from Iowa, I took a few back roads and visited two cheese factories. One of them was the Brunkow Cheese Cooperative, which is located outside of Darlington, Wisconsin.

If you want to know the Wisconsin that I know, avoid the interstate highways. In fact, avoid any road identified by numbers. Drive the county roads (perhaps misleadingly called "highways"), which are designated by letters. (My early years were spent on a farm on a Trempeleau County road called "Highway NN." My parents still refer to those years as "living on double-N.") At the intersection of two such roads -- Highway F and Highway G in Lafayette County -- you will find the Brunkow Cheese Cooperative.

Here is a brief history of the cooperative:

In 1899, a group of Wisconsin dairy farmers gathered to make plans to build a cheese factory, which would provide them with a market for their milk. They wanted a plant which would be built close to their farms, so that they could reduce the time and effort required getting their product to market ... for them and their horses.  The cheese factory was built as a co-op, with each farmer pledging money or labor to build the factory for his share in the co-op. It was named Brunkow Cheese Co-op for the farmer who donated the land.  A cheesemaker was hired. He furnished the machinery, tools and labor necessary to produce the cheese, and, once the cheese was sold, was paid a percentage of the money from the sale. A small amount of money was set aside for upkeep of the building, and what money remained was paid to the individual farmer members for each hundred pounds of milk he had delivered to the cheese factory for the month.

Brunkow still operates as a cooperative, and if you can't travel to rural Darlington, you can find their cheese at the Farmer's Market on Saturdays in Madison. (I didn't realize that until I walked into their store an saw a familiar label.) Although Brunkow mades a wide variety of cheeses, I know them for their cheddar cheese curds and aged cheese spreads, so I bought some of both.

Cheese curds are bite-sized chunks of cheddar cheese as they appear before being pressed into blocks and aged. In other words, this is fresh cheese. When you obtain them straight from the factory, as I did today, they are rubbery and they squeak when you bite them. Because they lose their freshness rapidly, Wisconsinites have taken to deep-fat frying them (coated in batter), which must be a fairly rapid route to a heart attack.

I rarely eat cheese spreads, which normally are a horrid imitation of real cheese. The Brunkow cheese spreads, on the other hand, are quite tasty. Their website explains why:

Our special blend of aged (over 100 days) raw milk Cheddar cheese, whey, cream, water and flavorings can enhance any meal or snack. We add no preservatives or artificial colors. Brunkow Cheese Co-op Cold Pack cheese is live, natural cheese with no relation to pasteurized, process cheeses. There is no heat involved, therefore the full flavor of the cheese remains.  Some spreads contain extra salt, stabilizers or added sugar, but not Brunkow Cheese Co-op Cold Pack Cheese Spread. The whey (with its own milk sugar) and cream make our spread naturally sweet. The flavor is exceptionally full-bodied.

Now I'm hungry again ...

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